Have we learnt from the failure over BSE?

October 15, 1999

A review of government research departments concludes that fundamental reforms are needed. Natasha Loder reports.

The climate for research in government departments has not been good in recent years. Funding has declined year-on-year, and the most spectacular failure of departmental research - the BSE epidemic - remains in the public eye.

Against this backdrop, the Council for Science and Technology - the prime minister's advisory body on science and technology policy - has produced a review of how governments use science in the five departments with the largest research expenditure. The results will not make comfortable reading.

The review group comprised a handful of the great and good of UK science policy: Dame Bridget Ogilvie, former head of the Wellcome Trust; Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of Glaxo Wellcome; serial biotechnology entrepreneur Chris Evans; Keith O'Nions; and Sir Robin Nicholson, former government chief scientist.

The group proposed fundamental reforms to help departments get the most from their research, including: setting priorities; measuring performance against goals; having a "joined up" strategy with other key players; filling knowledge gaps; making use of Foresight; making senior figures accountable for development and delivery; and bringing together and reviewing departmental strategies.

Sir Richard Sykes, former president of the British Association, said the biggest issue they found in their review was the constant withdrawal of funds.

When BSE came along, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had to shift funding from other areas to cope - while still having to keep tabs on many other issues, he said.

"We believe there is a big threat to the public in infectious diseases, outbreaks in foods. I think MAFF needs to be on top of that. We need to be investing more money to make sure we can reassure the public that we have the infrastructure to deal with things when they occur."

The ability to respond is a crucial issue in the report, along with the lack of long-term strategies. "If an emergency occurs you can't always be prepared but at least they (people in government laboratories) are not working on a shoestring in an area where the public could be at risk," said Sir Richard.

he hardest challenge for the departmental system is to ensure that proper consideration is given to research that could call existing policies into question. Departments cannot do this if they are constantly "putting out fires", said Sir Richard. Yet, he added, general work needs to be done into whether we are "at risk from a major infectious outbreak in a food chain".

Also under scrutiny is the division of responsibility for research: which areas are being covered and which are not; which areas are falling between different departments; and how tasks should be shared between departments and research councils.

Sir Richard said that when the BSE outbreak occurred, it was not clear whose job it was to find the cause and start prion research. Although most would argue this is a research council role, government departments argue that research councils cannot adapt their resources to do work in a new area - so departments take responsibility. But most departments are not as efficient at doing research as a research council.

Sir Richard says that this is the state of play now with prion research. The government response has been positive so far. It will publish recommendations on the CST report this year.

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